November 2008

First Nations

History repeats itself — lessons learned

By J. C. Reyes

Let me begin this article by testing your knowledge of a famous case involving the mining industry and aboriginal communities.

Do you remember the Mica Bay incident — the one where a group of aboriginal leaders, dissatisfied with the federal government’s decision to grant inappropriate mining permits and its disregard to local aboriginal land claims, decided to forcibly take over a mine?

The events unfolded when a band of Indians and Métis, led by the renowned Chief Shinguakouse, travelled from Sault Ste. Marie along the shores of Lake Superior for about 200 miles to Mica Bay, where they assailed the mining installations of the Quebec Mining Company. This armed initiative by a group estimated at between 30 and 100 strong inclined the company agent, John Bonner, to surrender without resistance. The incident shocked the government, who proceeded to send a force of 100 rifles to suppress this “Indian uprising.”

If you don’t remember, it’s OK. I am certain that you are not alone — this incident took place in 1849, predating even confederation. I wanted to highlight this occurrence, however, to illustrate how long the mining industry’s relationships with aboriginal peoples have been strained. At the time of the Mica Bay incident, Lord Elgin, the Governor General of Canada, had said: “I cannot but think that it is much to be regretted that steps were not taken to investigate thoroughly and extinguish all Indian claims before licenses of exploration or grants of land were conceded by the government in this territory. This omission is the pretext for the present disturbances and renders the Indians much more difficult to treat with.”

I think Lord Elgin would be rolling in his grave if he were to know that almost 160 years later many of the same issues are still haunting the mining industry.

The Mica Bay incident sparked urgency in settling a treaty with the aboriginals around Lake Huron. The Crown contracted the services of William Robinson, a shrewd fur trader who knew the area well — and also knew how to get the best deal from aboriginals. In order to settle this treaty quickly, the Crown provided Robinson with 7,500 pounds sterling to purchase as much land as possible. He was successful in obtaining title to approximately 50,000 square miles (32 million acres) of aboriginal territory, at the astounding price of about 66 cents per square mile. This marked the first time the Crown had concluded a cash-for-land deal. According to the traditional interpretation of the treaty, the chiefs regarded the money just as they had regarded the traded goods offered in previous treaties — as gifts in exchange for their agreement to share the use of their traditional territories with settler populations.

During the negotiations, Chief Michael Eagle Dokis of Lake Nipissing told Robinson that the aboriginal people were not willing to give up their lands and would certainly not sign a treaty. Robinson then told them they need not be afraid to give up their rights because government would never do anything to make them suffer saying, “you know yourselves where you have the best lands and that is where you have your reserves for yourselves and your children and their children ever after.” As a result, each chief agreed not to interfere with mining operations or prospecting in the ceded areas. As a reward, they were entitled to full and free privileges to hunt over the ceded territories and to fish in the waters to which they were accustomed.

We have all heard that if we do not learn from our mistakes we are doomed to repeat them. We obviously have not learned much since 1849 as we are now facing the very same issues today. Hopefully, the current and future governments will listen to Lord Elgin’s advice, and industry will learn that shrewd negotiations, with little regard for the rights of the aboriginal people, only yield a quick solution that quickly leaves both parties bitter and disappointed.

If you would like to learn more about this case study and others, attend the Learning Together 2009 conference in Montreal. Visit our website at

Juan Carlos Reyes is an Aboriginal consultant with and the executive director of Learning Together. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian Aboriginal people.

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